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Evaluating the Montreal Canadiens’ defensive performance

Looking at some underlying numbers to find the standouts on the blue line — both good and bad.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens sit third in the Atlantic Division (second if you go by points percentage) as we approach the middle of November. Holding the second-best goal differential in the division is certainly helping matters, and ranking fifth in goals per game is welcome, even if unexpected, for a team with no superstars.

Despite the number of goals the Habs are scoring, the amount they are allowing is a bit concerning. Their 3.12 goals allowed per contest rank 20th in the league, requiring them to score at their current clip to keep a positive differential. There’s no guarantee that the team will continue to score at its current pace. In fact, a five-on-five scoring rate (3.16 per 60 minutes) that is currently 27% higher than their expected output (2.48 per 60) suggests that it may not.

Getting that goals-against average down should be the top priority for the team. You’ve already read plenty about the penalty kill woes; that 29th-ranked special-teams unit is responsible for 15 of the 54 goals Montreal has allowed, and cost them a few points in the standings. It’s not the only situation the Canadiens need to tighten up, however.

At five-on-five, Montreal isn’t a bad defensive team as far as the stats are concerned. They are about average, sitting 13th in goals against per 60 minutes played, at 2.28, which is precisely what is expected from the chances they’ve allowed. “Average” will get Montreal into another fight for a wild-card spot, so an easier route to the post-season should be sought by cleaning up their one main weakness.

The team started the year with eight defenders on the 23-man roster, and all have played at least five games. The top four has been established all season long, while four players have taken turns on the third pairing. Looking at their numbers this season, we can see who is holding their own defensively, and which players have been a bit out of their element.

GP: games played; TOI: time on ice; OZS%: offensive-zone-start percentage, or the percentage of total end-zone starts that take place in the attacking end; CA/60: Corsi (shot attempts) against per 60 minutes; CF%: Corsi-for percentage; SCA/60: scoring chances against per 6-; SCF%: scoring-chances-for percentage; xGA/60: expected goals against per 60; xGF%: expected goals-for percentage; GA/60: goals against per 60; GF%: goals-for percentage; On-Ice SV%: pecent of opposing shots stopped while player is on the ice; PDO: on-ice shooting plus on-ice save percentage
Five-on-five stats via Natural Stat Trick

The main thing that sticks out in the defensive comparison are Cale Fleury’s numbers. Despite by far the easiest zonal deployment of any of the eight defenders (as you should expect for a rookie), he ranks last in nearly every category, and often significantly so. He’s also the closest to a typical PDO of 1.000, so bad luck isn’t playing a part in his numbers. Eight of the Canadiens’ 31 five-on-five goals against, 26%, have come in the 20% of the total minutes Fleury has been on the ice.

There’s a lot to like about Fleury’s game. He’s a fairly smooth puck-mover and plays a physical style. He may become an everyday NHL defenceman in the near future, but it doesn’t seem that he’s ready for the top level of competition just yet.

Goals against usually serve as the most obvious measure of a defenceman’s play by the eye test. In Fleury’s case, as seen by comparing his expected goals against to the actual number, such an evaluation is accurate enough. In Brett Kulak’s case, his goal differential is painting the opposite picture to his actual play.

Kulak has only played nine games this season, but has been on the ice for seven goals against at five-on-five, sporting an even higher goals-against-per-60 mark than Fleury. Looking at his on-ice save percentage, you see his number is five percentage points lower than the next defenceman above him. Most blue-liners have been seeing normal goaltending while they’re on the ice. There is only a single goaltender who has played more than one game with a season five-on-five save percentage below .865, and that’s Winnipeg’s Laurent Brossoit at .864.

Kulak has received an easier deployment than the established top four, but he’s number one in all of the ‘against’ metrics — including expected goals against. It’s clear that he’s the best of the four options used on the third pair in recent weeks, and rivals some of those who’ve played in the top four all year long.

He’s not obviously better, which is good news for the construction of the team. With tougher deployments, all of Victor Mete, Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, and Jeff Petry are at 50% or better in all the shot, chance, and goal categories.

The offensive game is the biggest reason for those percentages. In league rankings, Kulak sits 32nd with his 1.9 expected goals against per 60 minutes, and just two more blue-liners (Mete, 54th; Petry, 70th) are found in the top 120.

The offensive style the Canadiens are playing is allowing them to get away with some defensive lapses, still ranking inside the top eight as a team in all of the percentage stats used in this article. If they can tighten up their play in their own defensive zone, they can not only help their own cause, but perhaps become one of the top teams in the entire NHL.